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Discussing the challenges of Brexit with Chris Tufnell

We interviewed the RCVS senior vice-president to find out what he thinks lies ahead for the veterinary profession in the UK

Jennifer Parker
05 January 2018, at 11:14am
Chris Tufnell, RCVS senior vice-president
Chris Tufnell, RCVS senior vice-president

How has the RCVS been preparing for the UK’s exit from the EU?

The RCVS and the BVA have been working on Brexit since just after the referendum result. In early summer, Defra expressed an interest in having a joint project with RCVS and BVA – the Veterinary Capability and Capacity Project (VCCP). The main element of the work so far has been forming the response to the Migration Advisory Committee.

The project is split into three workstreams; the first is on resourcing. We need to emphasise the need to get resourcing right – this is the most important stream at this stage. Of the practising vets on our register, 23% are non-UK EU and 50% of the new vets we register each year are non-UK EU vets. Those figures alone give you an idea that, were we to lose the immigrant vets, we would have problems recruiting.

Some sectors are at much greater risk from a reduction in non-UK EU vets – the meat industry, for example, where 95% of the vets are non-UK EU. Around 30% of Official Vets are non-UK EU, and this figure is considerably higher in government roles. In academia, around 22% of vets are non-UK EU. In our last survey, about 65% of all vets were working full-time, and 87% of EU vets were full-time. Vets from non-UK EU countries may therefore have an even higher contribution than the numbers initially suggest.

How are you calculating what the UK’s workforce needs will be after Brexit?

Recruitment was becoming a problem before Brexit, and there are elements of this project that were there before the Brexit vote. A recent survey showed that about 20% of practices were finding it much harder to recruit, and no practices at all told us it was getting easier.

It’s really difficult to know exactly what the shortfall is, but we’re trying our hardest to survey and get a good idea. Since 2009, EU-graduated vet registrations have been growing year on year. And there’s a suggestion that things are plateauing, if not dropping off. 

We did a survey with the Institute of Employment Studies into non-UK EU vets registered with us working here; we got a 55% response rate and a third were thinking of going back to mainland EU.

We already needed more vets; with Brexit, are you confident we will be able to meet the demand?

I’m not remotely confident we’ll meet the demand.

What can be done to reduce the impact of potential shortfalls?

In terms of the three streams of the VCCP, the resourcing stream is number one, and we’ve asked the Home Office to put vets back on the occupation shortages list. This would make it easier to recruit from abroad – it would smooth regulatory barriers. In the short to medium term, we’re asking that we can retain the current level of veterinary immigration. The Vet Futures Project reported in November 2015 and we realised that, possibly not uniquely, we had a retention issue in the profession – after five years in practice, 50% of people said they were disillusioned. Retaining people in the roles they’re in could help with the shortfall. We must also ensure we’re recruiting the right people into the profession in terms of their expectations being matched with the realities. You could say “we need to make sure the expectations are realistic”, but we probably need to make the reality more favourable too. That sort of thing is going to take a long time.


The final workstream is on legislation. This is looking at potentially expanding the role of veterinary nurses so they can do some of the jobs currently being done by veterinary surgeons. Also as part of this stream, we’re aware that with rapid change and development of innovative technologies, there are ways of delivering veterinary health and welfare solutions, potentially remotely, that are not currently permitted in our legislative framework.

Have there been discussions about ways to help over-stretched vets during the in-between period of uncertainty, where retention of vets may not improve and recruitment of vets from non-UK EU countries may fall?

Pre-dating the vote, we put a lot of resource into Vet Life and our Mind Matters initiative; we’re very aware of the stresses vets are under and wish to support them in every way possible. We look at our regulation very carefully to ensure that we are responding as best we can to reduce pressure on vets.

Obviously, protecting the public and animal health and welfare are incredibly important, so we can’t lower those standards, but if there are areas where we can maintain the standards and relax regulation to allow vets to bring other people in to assist, then we would do so.

You mentioned increasing the role of the veterinary nurse in the profession – has there been any discussion about using paraprofessionals to reduce pressure on veterinary surgeons?

I’m aware that there’s been talk around TB testing. For product certification, that’s pretty much off the table because the international standard for trading animals and meat products requires veterinary surgeon certification. If you change that standard, you can no longer export meat to other countries.

Under our new Royal Charter, we can potentially regulate groups of paraprofessionals in the same way as the veterinary nursing profession. The inspectors working for the Meat Hygiene Service were some of the first to approach us and ask if there were ways that could be done. If that progresses, and we’re able to regulate them so we know the level of their standards, there’s no reason they couldn’t be brought in to do certain roles, so long as it meets our legislation and international requirements.